Royal, Robert: Τhe other Camus
But Camus was not simply a blind disciple of Nietzsche. In Camus’s work, there is no hint of the Nietzschean scorn for the great masses of people too hamstrung by Christianity and the usual human-herd instincts to pursue the heroic ideal. Camus was too aware of his own failings and too sympathetic to the human predicament for such arrogance. And Camus had too great a love and reverence for the way of life and kinds of people who appear in The First Man.
Camus was powerfully attracted by the notion of a return to simple happiness after a plumbing of existential depths—for modern intellectuals. Whatever relationship this stance has to the truth about ancient Greece (probably very little), it was his task to make the simple greatness of his poor Algerians visible to the literate world. In the last analysis, it may be this Camus, the Camus of post-Christian pagan piety and the expansive energy emerging toward the end in Exile and the Kingdom, The Fall, and The First Man, that says the most to us in the post-Cold War world and that will endure. We may now also have to think about this Camus in unexpected company—that of Leo Tolstoy.
Such a pairing seems odd only if we insist on the spare, existential Camus as the essential man. The Camus of the first phase is certainly closer to Kafka and Dostoyevsky as one of the radical explorers of the modern predicament. By the 1950s, however, Camus said he preferred re-reading Tolstoy. Even earlier, in a note to himself, Camus revealed that the example of Tolstoy’s life was much on his mind: “I must break with everything. If there is no desert at hand there is always the plague or Tolstoy’s little railway station.”
Tolstoy’s troubled pacifism and humanitarianism, his moral stature and his irregular Christianity, and even his domestic problems, we now see, have striking parallels in the life and career of the later Camus. More pointedly, Tolstoy’s descent into the confused wreckage of modern culture in search of “what men live by” unexpectedly anticipates Camus’s own quest. Tolstoy saw in his Russian peasants and Camus in his pied-noirs some simple virtue and calm hope that the intellectual and political world spurned. Tolstoy remains the much larger figure, of course. But we will never know how much closer their intellectual odysseys might have brought them had Michel Gallimard’s car not strayed from the road that winter day, sending Camus to the grave at an age when Tolstoy had just reached the height of his powers.